The trucking company that had been indicted in an Interstate 16 pileup that killed five Georgia Southern University nursing students last year will no longer be prosecuted, Atlantic Judicial Circuit District Attorney Tom Durden announced Wednesday afternoon.
However, the driver, who also has been indicted in the April 22, 2015, wreck in North Bryan, is due in court July 14, Durden said.
Total Transportation has agreed to establish Brightstar Educational Foundation Inc., a Georgia nonprofit corporation, to honor the memory of the five nursing students who died and two others who were injured in the pileup.
Killed in the wreck were Emily Elizabeth Clark, Morgan Jane Bass, Abbie Lorene DeLoach, Catherine “McKay” Pittman and Caitlyn Nichole Baggett. The students who were injured are Brittney McDaniel and Megan Rebecca Richards.
The foundation was established and registered with the Secretary of State’s Office June 28 and provides an initial capitalization of $200,000, Durden said in a news release.
The stated purposes of the foundation will be to provide financial assistance to students applying for enrollment in nursing programs at Georgia colleges and universities, and to provide educational programs and content to Georgia schools and the public pertaining to driver education and safety.
“In light of Total Transportation’s decision, the district attorney has moved the court to nolle prosequi the indictment against them,” the news release says.
The driver, John Wayne Johnson remains indicted on five counts of first-degree homicide by vehicle and one count each of serious injury by vehicle, reckless driving, failure to exercise due care and following too closely.
Total Transportation had been indicted on five counts of first-degree homicide by vehicle and one count each of criminal responsibility and serious injury by vehicle.
Johnson was driving a 2012 Peterbilt Model 587 big rig eastbound on I-16 when it crashed into traffic that had been backed up from an earlier wreck before 6 a.m. April 22, 2015, according to the indictment.
In April, the families of three of the students who died in the wreck — Baggett, Clark and DeLoach — reached settlements in lawsuits filed against Total Transportation, Total Transportation of Mississippi; New Mountain Lake Holdings LLC, the holding company of Total Transportation’s parent company, U.S. Xpress Enterprises; U.S. Xpress Inc.; U.S. Xpress Leasing Inc.; and Mountain Lake Risk Retention Group LLC, an insurer of the U.S. Xpress companies, all of Chattanooga, Tennessee. The suit also named Johnson as a defendant.
All seven students, in two vehicles, were on their way to St. Joseph’s Hospital in Savanah for the last day of their spring-semester clinical rotations.
Billy Jones, a Hinesville attorney who was acting as local counsel for the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said in a news release announcing the settlement that Johnson “never applied his brakes before the collision,” based on the big rig’s black-box data.
Attorneys Robert Cheeley, Brandon Peak and David Rohwedder of Butler Wooten Cheeley and Peak LLP of Atlanta and Columbus, acted as lead counsel in the suit.
Cheeley said in April that Total Transportation made Johnson wait 10 hours at the terminal in Ridgeland, Mississippi, before having his tractor-trailer ready, and then made him drive through the night to get to Savannah.
“Though he denies it, Johnson likely either fell asleep behind the wheel or was distracted by taking his eyes off the roadway, perhaps looking at his cellphone,” Cheeley said.
The attorney added, “Johnson claimed he could not remember the four-digit code to his iPhone, so we will never know if he was looking at something on the phone at the time of the wreck.”